The Bar and Hijab Brouhaha by Carl Umegboro

INDEED, what goes around comes around! Criticisms and diverse opinions have continued pouring from the public over the recent quagmire involving a student of the Nigerian Law School, Amasa Firdaus that insisted on wearing Muslims’ hijab contrary to the policy of the Council of Legal Education (CLE), and as a result, was denied entry into the auditorium for the call-to-bar ceremony. The development created factions in the bar; some emotionally backed the student on account of the fundamental human rights especially Sections 38(1) and 42(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended which provides for right to religion among others.
Others seemingly in the majority vehemently objected, perched on the side of the Council insisting that a formal dressing for call-to-bar ceremony is sacrosanct. The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), A.B. Mahmoud (SAN) in particular received an overdose of criticisms from colleagues for standing for the embattled student, arguing that Hijabs are permissible for lawyers in similar convocations overseas.
Parochially, the judgment of Court of Appeal in 2016 against Lagos State Government presided per Justice A.B. Gumel which affirmed wearing of Hijabs in public schools would be in favour of the dramatis personae; a judgment which the court never envisaged the decision could one day affect the judiciary. Hence, a great lesson on fallacious decisions and actions. By the appellate court’s verdict, students now have unfettered rights to wear Hijabs in public schools that are distinct from missionary schools pursuant to fundamental human right, and unconsciously, the court set a wrong precedent forgetting that folks that live in glass houses do not throw stones. Incidentally, the stones first landed on the bar. It’s therefore indicative that the appellate decision may have to be challenged at the apex court for a clearer position. Who takes the blame? Of course, the judiciary solely created the catastrophe, interestingly, this time against itself. As a matter of fact, if the blunder is not carefully revised, a religious bigot-practicing lawyer may after this episode stand on the appellate decision to appear before a court either on Hijab or perhaps, clergies in the Christendom that are lawyers on religious apparels. Indeed, this is not a good development for the judiciary.
On the other hand, looking at the quandary holistically, precisely away from the appellate court’s commission or omission, the action taken by the CLE in refusing entry without formal dressing was apt and philosophical. This position is logical on account that the law school is exclusively the training place for practicing lawyers under the Nigerian Legal System, and customarily, to practice in Nigeria requires dressing code before the court unlike in the United Kingdom and United States of America referred to by the NBA President. The call-to-bar is the final stage for assessment, and therefore logical that students endorsed for practice should appear professionally fit in sync with the ethics of the profession to be presented to the Chief Justice of Nigeria for the needful. As a profession, legal practitioners have stipulated ethics, ethos and etiquettes which include dressing code in the court.
Obviously, subjecting the matter to religion is disappointedly, completely out of it. This is because the embattled student wasn’t clogged by the Council from practicing a religion of choice even in the law school, rather, there was attempt to allow religion substantially interfere with professional ethics. It is a trite rule that professional bodies established by law have rules and regulations guiding them. In the Bible, for example, it is encoded as a fundamental principle in Matthew 22:21, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. This was laid down in resolving a similar dilemma among the people on rules to keep. Sensitively, the judgment of the Appeal Court albeit flawed, nonetheless, a professional body like law alongside law school cannot competently be included in the category of public schools for freewill dressing and attires. In the primary, secondary and university education, the judgment may manageably survive for some time but unrealistic for the law school that is for vocational training. It is akin to relying on the same fundamental human right to question a management for denying its member of staff entry into a factory without designated dressing pattern.
On the way forward, religious bigots should draw a red line between a profession and religion. The right to practice any religion, though fundamental in the constitution is clearly not to the extent of overriding professional ethics. Can the two coexist without prejudice? Emphatically yes. Simply, wear all desirable religious apparels and costumes everywhere except during conventions by professional bodies like call-to-bar-ceremony. This is the marginal note of the apothegm, ‘live and let live’. It is equally imperative to note that the freedom guaranteed by fundamental human-rights doesn’t accord unrestrained liberty. To belong to a professional body has a price, and this is, on the other hand, where the freedom to belong to associations or professions is determinable by individuals. In Nigeria, to become a practicing lawyer, to garb wigs alongside gown is inevitable and the only remedy is to terminate legal studies at the universities as academic lawyer. But for practicing lawyers, professional ethics which include dressing code is unavoidable.
Umegboro, a public affairs analyst wrote from Lagos, and could be reached: umegborocarl@gmail.com (0705 710 1974 SMS only)




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